Your Guide to Organic, Biodynamic and Natural Wine

Judging The Judges

The recent announcement that Wal-Mart will be evaluating the environmental impact of the products sold in its stores was more than a little weird. As the biggest of the big box stores worldwide, a merchant that made “we sell for less” the gold standard in retailing, this new obsession with “sustainability” and “traceability” gave us real pause.

Wal-Mart’s track record as a steward of decency is, to put it mildly, thin. They have been forced to settle court cases on employee overtime issues, gender discrimination and have ongoing inquiries with states over taxation and with environmentalists over new sites. They alone are the single largest party responsible for the transfer of dollars to China and the rise of the Yuan as a global currency. Their stance on labor organizing is well known. Many have blamed the demise of Main Street on their predatory pricing policies. We could go on.

But what caught our eye at is that someone very, very high up at Wal-Mart thinks the public wants to know what is the karma behind the products they buy to wear, use and eat. We agree. Our thesis of “responsible hedonism” and the “ethics of luxury and the luxury of ethics” have always stood for learning what is behind the wines we drink. We have always asked: How was this wine made? How were the vines nurtured? What were the field workers exposed to? What was added in the vintning process? What was the energy profile in the making and storage?

We have always thought this was an important part of the enjoyment of the beverage, and now so does Wal-Mart. This could be huge because this retailer touches the very core of America and, increasingly, the world’s shoppers. When they start demanding from their suppliers proof of sustainability, what comes next? Will they list the pesticides, herbicides and fungicides that are used? Will they reveal water usage per acre? When it comes to wine, will we be told the levels of these chemicals found on their vineyard laborers skins?

This door is a very hard one to close. Back to the stores themselves: We can see the rise of outside graders who will analyze the economic impact of Wal-Mart on small towns and suburban counties. We could see sending monitors to the countless Chinese factories churning out all the low price stuff. Anyone want to guess what they would find in terms of environmental and labor issues? Yet, all in all it’s a good thing because these proposed little profiles on the shelf next to the product will be a constant reminder that what is behind the product can be as important as the product itself. If it backfires, that will be a good thing too because it will force them to reform or abandon the plan in an embarrassing retreat. If it works, it could force everyone else to stop hiding behind sexy, clever ad campaigns and low prices and tell us what we’re really buying and drinking.

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guntherOrganic grape grower and vintner Gunther Di Giovanna came to New York this week with his wines for a tasting at ‘inoteca Vino e Cucina in the Lower East Side. Articulate, and poised and clearly devoted to organic growing, Gunther shared six of his vintages. ‘inoteca brought out plates of Italian cheese, salami, spreads and breads as well as organic olive oil from Gunther’s Sicilian farm.

First up was a 2008 Grillo. This uncommon white grape was fruity with a well-balanced acid profile, and a nicely rounded body. It had a bit of a Chardonnay profile in terms of color and density.

Next was a 2007 Grecanico. This was lighter and a bit more fruity. It was lovely and clean and very well balanced. At 12.5% alcohol, it was more than a “summer thirst quencher” but less than a serious wine that would be paired with, say, lobster.

Our third taste was a beautiful 2008 Gerbino Rosé from another uncommon grape, Nerello Mascalese. Gunther was like a proud father when he spoke of this wine, which is fermented in the vat as a rosé, rather than being a blend of red and white wines. He really likes its soft, round quality and clean fresh fruity flavors. He says it goes well with sushi and pizza. As Sicilian weather varies so little from year to year, the vintages do not vary greatly either. We found it an easy-to-like-rose with just enough body to make it interesting.

Next came the reds. We tasted his 2006 Poggionotte Nero d’Avola while Gunther explained he was trying to express the grape without manipulation or oaking. He loves this Sicilian mainstay varietal and wants his wine to be bold and clean. We agree and our notes were all favorable: elegant, soft, and complex were characteristics observed. This is his terroir wine.

He then poured his “market to the world” wine, a 2007 Gerbino Rosso. It is a field blend of 35% cab, 35% merlot 15% syrah and 15% nero d’avola. It was fine and, being organic, delighted us to think that he was providing an easy-drinking answer to conventional wines being sold at this price point ($12). He told us every winery needs one of these for the mass market or “a wine bar.”

His true baby came last, the second use of the Nerello Mascalese grape, this time as a red. This is a rich, well structured, very dense wine. Hints of spices like cinnamon came through, along with the flavor of blackberries. The strength of the wine was tempered by its smoothness and was clearly in oak long enough to reduce the tannin spikes. We really liked this wine and imagined ourselves in a wintry season watching a fire while eating a smoked meat plate or a bowl of pasta with a meat ragu.

Gunther is a modern man who has always been an organic grower, as the Italians say “da sempre.” He is a great spokesperson for his island and his vineyards and added so much to the enjoyment of his wines. The attendees, an attractive young crowd of downtowners, seemed to agree.

The event was under the direction of Joe Denton, co-owner of ‘inoteca. Read our interview with Joe here.

Photo of Gunther Di Giovanna by Suzannah B. Troy.

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History was made last night at the James Beard Awards Dinner Gala at Lincoln Center. A truly sustainable, organic-oriented chef and localvore Dan Barber was voted Best Chef in America. In an evening not always noted for its sustainability (the chef who won for Southwest region flies his fish in from the Mediterranean to Las Vegas) Dan Barber’s stunning achievement says a lot. As Clark Wolf said, “to have an intellectual farm chef win the award tells the whole story of what is important not only in America but, the whole world.”

In another notable sustainable moment, Nate Applebaum, Rising Chef Of The Year winner for A16 restaurant in San Francisco actually thanked “the local farmers” in his acceptance speech.

All in all, chuck one up for sustainability and congratulations to Dan Barber.

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terroirsdoorEd Wilson’s food is miles away from the “cooking from tins” image that forever bedevils the British kitchen. He cooks from market and farm, embracing, celebrating and luxuriating in the products of his nation. The crab is from Dorset and the pork belly is from Suffolk. Yes, he has Jamon de Teruel from Spain, and heirloom pork from the Pyrenees, but the Lincolnshire smoked eel with a tangy horseradish celeriac remoulade is where his heart is at.

There is less borrowing from the continent than Gordon Ramsey (who dined there the night before we did) and Wilson doesn’t try to re-create French or Italian cuisine. Instead, their ingredients, like snails or polenta, are given an English spin. Wilson is French-trained, as was Escoffier when he cooked at London’s Ritz, so he’s not advancing any new culinary ground, just making it completely accessible. Terroirs is a long way from tails and tie.

All these delicacies are accomplished without a single open flame. For reasons known only to the landlord, Terroirs can’t have a gas stove. The food is prepared with an electric broiler or cook top. Still, tasting the slow-cooked Suffolk pork belly, braised chickpeas and morcilla or the pot roasted quail with Italian artichokes, pancetta and gremolata evokes a meal that was simmered on a wood stove for days.

Naturally, there is a lot of cheese and charcuterie for those who want the more traditional wine bar. Here Wilson allows himself to cross the channel. The day we dined there, the cheeses were French and the charcuterie favored the Spanish and Italians.

edwilsonTo top it all off, the simple, yet brilliantly prepared menu is matched with an artisinal wine list; all organic, biodynamic and natural. Wilson is happy to let the wines share the spotlight with the food. “I want the food to be seasonal, but also simple, so it dies not clash with the wines.” Which, by the way, are some of the most interesting to be drunk anywhere. Many appear cloudy and fizzy with aromas of earth and moss. They are quirky and different. Dining doesn’t get better than this, only more complicated (foams) or more formal (lots of langoustines and beurre blanc).

Wilson seems to know all the grape farmers personally, or at least their philosophies. His goal isn’t to have a list with set numbers from every region. Instead his wines are chosen by what he believes in, coupled with what’s available at the moment; possibly a Boissor Rouge vin de table Vigneron or a naturally sparkling red from Cahors. This creates excitement and chases away the static sense of knowing what you will find at Terroirs.

The restaurant is a newly renovated, with dining split between the elegant street level with large windows, and a lower space with an open kitchen surrounded by a zinc wrap-around bar. Many of the tables are communal. Energy runs high among the mixed crowd – everyone from hip 20-somethings to suited 50 year olds. The décor is eclectic and welcoming, no next-wave Philippe Stark here. Terroirs is a wonderful place to drink and eat the very best that Ed Wilson and his partner Eric can find and cook. To our palette that makes it an outpost of heaven.

Tasting Notes

2008 Tracoli de Guetaria, Bodegas Ameztoi: Sparkling white from the Basque region. Green, fresh, clean.

Boissor Rouge vin de table, Vigneron: Naturally sparkling red gamay. Looks like an unfiltered mixed berry juice and taste a little like it too. Alive, unsophisticated. Made in such small batches that Ed can’t always keep it in stock.

2007 Riesling, Domaine Albert Mann, Alsace: Classic, well-made riesling. Well-balalnced.

2007 Solf du Mal, Domaine Foulard Rouges: Unfiltered. Tastes like a country wine of rural France in the 1960’s, the kind made for local consumption, never labeled, sold out of barrels to people who brought their own bottles.

Jean Foillard, Morgan: Foillard is one of the original makers of natural wines. He only makes this morgan, which is refined, elegant, tastes like gamay-meets-cabernet sauvignon.

2005 Jura, Domaine Daniel Dugois, Arbois, Savagin: A little oxidized. Nice with cheese course at end of meal.

Vivreau: Brilliant idea for bottled water. Viveau supplies the bottles and filters for either flat or sparkling waters, which the restaurant “bottles” on site.

Terroirs Wine bar and Restaurant
5 William IV Street
London WC2N 4DW
Phone 0207 036-0660

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Two weeks ago President Obama threw his first White House dinner for the political elite. He had the state governors over. President Obama served organic wine. Yes, our new President, a man who loves wine, and has his own wine collection, chose to do the right thing and not poison his guests. Obama served three wines: a California Spottswoode, Oregon’s Archery Summit and Michigan’s Black Star Farms ice wine. We’ve had a grin on our face for weeks after learning the news. Why? Because we believe events like this will make the country understand that drinking organic and biodynamic wines is the right thing to do.

They are the right thing to do for their terroir-focused flavors and tastes. They are the right thing to drink because they don’t poison farm workers, earthworms, birds and insects. They are the right thing to drink because they don’t add toxic pesticides, herbicides and fungicides to the land and the water that irrigates it. Clearly President Obama “gets it” and understands that as part of raising the consciousness of all we eat and drink “going organic” includes wine as well as food.

This is a shot across the bow to conventional wine makers and other poisoners of the environment. Obama has come through for Organic Wine Journal readers.

Happy Drinking Mr. President.

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Three Sheets To The Wind

sailWhen I am not obsessing about organic and biodynamic wine, I relax by obsessing about sailing, often by thumbing through my favorite magazine, the British-based Yachting World. Imagine my surprise and joy, when there among the breathtaking photos of racing yachts, was an article about green transport of wine by… sailboat. CTMV, a company based in France, is reducing the carbon footprint of wine transport by returning to the past and using wind power to bring the “claret,” as Bordeaux was once referred to in London’s clubs, from France to Great Britain and Ireland.

As of now, they are doing this in a sort of ceremonial way by using an old barkentine (a three masted ship to all you lubbers), the Belem. A second vintage ship, the Kathleen and May, is also making the voyage, loaded with wine headed to London. The company seems thoroughly organized. They have impressed (as in the gang sense) over eighty Languedoc/Roussillon wine makers to fund the venture.

What really had me excited, however, was the company’s plans for state-of-the-art sailing ships. The first one is in the construction shed scheduled to be launched in the summer of 2010. She will be 156 ft. long, hold 210 tons of wine and sail at 11kts. Now that’s a maiden voyage I would book passage on! She should easily be able to go Trans-Atlantic.

Wouldn’t it be great to meet this ship at the quays like people did a hundred years ago and celebrate the cargo’s arrival? It would also be great if Frederic Albert, the man with the plan, could convince all the vineyards to put a little label (post consumer paper of course) on each bottle with an image of the boat so that we know we are drinking in a more responsible manner.

Bon Voyage!

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Anyone can. All you have to do is read the January issue of Wired Magazine. There on page 68 is an article by noted writer Bill Donahue titled “Superproducer.” The subhead gives the clue: bionic agriculture…turbocharged seeds, precision chemistry.

Because of overly complex, toxic, opaque financial engineering which layered derivative upon derivative in an attempt to boost return on investment yield, we may be only half way through a financial panic of world-shaking proportions. Only a few financial analysts foresaw that it could unravel and cause a global credit crash. All the king’s MBAs and geek computer modelers created a doomsday machine that simply, as in the words of Alan Greenspan, became a “once in a century credit tsunami.” What was different this time was the central role of computer modeling and internet technology that could instantly and simultaneously disperse a sup-prime mortgage tranche to Brisbane and Oslo, insuring that everyone would be taken in.

Now the same out-on-a-limb, never-done-before gene splicing and manipulation, combined with pesticide cocktails, are being engineered to increase soybean yields. In Donahue’s words, “Modern farming is science, awash in crazily capable machinery.” Speaking of a featured farmer, we are told, “He burns up thousands of cell phone minutes each month talking to Pioneer and BASF technical advisers — chemistry PhDs who can expound on the relative merits of Respect insecticide formulated from zeta-cypermethrin, and Headline fungicide…Dozens of these experts are on hand.” The article goes to extol the brilliance of the plan to employ “unusually high herbicide use” by SPRAYING HERBICIDE BEFORE PLANTING!

That’s not even the scary part. The real potential for frankenfarming is in the gene splicing. In a war for profits Pioneer, a seed supplier, is using patented and proprietary DNA manipulation of the soy plant’s genes to increase, you guessed it yield and force the farmer, who wants this yield, into buying patented seeds from them. But, it gets better. Monsanto and others have created genetic mutations that are pesticide specific…with their pesticide… so you have to buy not only their seeds but also their toxic chemicals to unlock the seed’s potential.

When this all goes awry, it will be just like the financial derivative mess. We may wipe out soybean or corn crops, perhaps worldwide. One small, unforeseen, unpredicted flaw in the manipulated DNA-altered chain could cause a cascade of events leading to systemic crop failure.

Unlike the fiscal meltdown, the government cannot just print more plants to undo the unintended consequences. People could starve all over the world. The entire chain of domesticated plantings that started millennia ago in the Fertile Crescent could come crashing down. Don’t ever believe anyone who tells you it couldn’t happen. That’s what all the world’s top bankers said about the mortgage loan markets. When there is money to be made, man always puts profit ahead of caution and long-term vision. As in the fiscal crisis, the search for higher yield often leads the searcher into calamity, to everyone’s detriment.

Contrast this to Organic and Biodynamic farmers, who listen to the land rather than to corporate engineers: farmers who respect the entire chain of life, starting with the earthworms. Biodynamic farmers use the earth’s and animal resources rather than patented, for-profit seeds and chemicals to increase yield. And by not creating new and unknown genetic mutations, they are not putting us all at risk for a catastrophic failure of one of the crops that is a primary food source.

I can see the senate hearings now. All the key executives from the global seed and chemical companies testifying on Monday on what they were hoping for profit wise when they started these programs. Were they aware of the unintended consequences or did increased chemical and seed sales override all other considerations? Tuesday is the scientists and genetic engineers, all full of mea culpas. They were only trying to feed the growing and hungry world. Wednesday will be the hubris-shorn farmers, humble in their denim overalls. They were just trying to increase their farms’ yield.

The Wired article goes into great detail about the mechanics, science and marketplace shenanigans of this new-fangled farming, Please read it for your own edification. It ends with the ultimate ironical words, “…and I can’t even imagine what sort of strange magic these fields will sprout in the future.”

Let’s hope we never find out.

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State of the Glass

Was the glass of organic and biodynamic wine in 2008 half full or half empty? From our seat at OWJ it seems a little murky; like an unfined, unfiltered red Rhone. Industry statistics point to an increase in sales of around 30% for the organic category against a backdrop of 3% for all wine. However, that starts from a very low base, estimated at still less that 1% of all wine produced.

Other signs point in two directions at once. At a fund raiser the other evening the head of one of New York’s famous wine stores told me he all his fall sales were for wines between $6.00 and $15.00 a bottle – down from the $25 and up. That can’t be good for organic and biodynamic wines, as they are mostly smaller higher cost artisinal producers. If the global fiscal meltdown drives everyone into the grape factory arms of Yellow Tails and Ravenswood that would be unfortunate.

Yet a new cool wine shop, Blue Angel, specializing in organic and biodynamic wine just opened in the hot place for young people, Williamsburg Brooklyn. Blue Angel is focused on artisinal wines under $15.00.

I also had a conversation with two high up sales reps for one of the largest wine importers, people who sell tens of millions of dollars of wine to restaurants and bars. They told me that “organic wine is definitely hot, everyone asks for it and it’s on the radar of our bars and restaurant clients.”

Wine shops too are more often highlighting their organic and biodynamic wines, via a defined section or a green marker. Some shops are regularly featuring these wines in their ads and promotional efforts, a very good omen for our world.

The media are also adding their weight towards the “tipping point”. There were scores of articles on organic wines last year. I saw stories in local newspapers and regional magazines and in the influential giants like Gourmet and Food and Wine. Even the mainstream media like Wine Spectator and Wine Enthusiast ran articles and features.

Lastly, here at the Organic Wine Journal we continue to experience a nice steady growth in readers, links and contributors. We are only beginning, however. We have big plans for 2009. A new re-designed site is coming soon to reach out to the organic and biodynamic wine community and help them promote and sell their wines better. We will try harder to save more earthworms, insects, birds and farm workers than ever.

As always we love to hear from you. We want more links, more advertisers, more articles and stories and more feedback from our wine community.

Here’s a toast to an organic and biodynamic 2009!

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